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Pa. police lab can drive to the scene of the crime

October 16, 1997

By LISA GRAYBEAL

Staff Writer, Chambersburg

CHAMBERSBURG, Pa. - Instead of waiting days for forensic lab test results, state and municipal police forces can count on getting answers in a matter of minutes by linking to a statewide fingerprinting identification system at the scene of the crime.

Gov. Tom Ridge and Pennsylvania State Police Commissioner Paul J. Evanko announced Tuesday that one specially equipped van will be assigned to each of the 15 regional state police troops.

The 1997 Chevrolet Astro all-wheel drive vans, which cost $26,689 apiece, will carry about $400,000 worth of equipment, including a field kit that is part of the new state police fingerprint identification system, said Jack Lewis, press secretary for Pennsylvania State Police in Harrisburg, Pa.

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From the lab-on-wheels, police can transfer fingerprint images lifted at the scene of a crime from a special camera to a computer.

The images are then transmitted to one of the state's six crime labs, where they are put through an image enhancement system that allows an examiner to "clean up" the fingerprint image, Lewis said.

The prints are then entered into the Automated Fingerprint Identification System to launch a search for a match.

Pennsylvania State Police is the first law enforcement agency in the country to transmit fingerprint images from the field to the lab and then into the identification system, Lewis said.

"If a match is found, investigators will know a suspect's identification before leaving the crime scene. That will save countless investigative man-hours and hopefully result in arrests much more quickly than is now possible," said Evanko in a prepared statement.

The mobile lab units will be dispatched to crime scenes in the troop areas as needed, Lewis said.

The state police barracks in Chambersburg will have access to the van stationed in Harrisburg, and the McConnellsburg, Pa., barracks in Fulton County will be able to use the one from Hollidaysburg, Pa., Lewis said.

State police in Chambersburg now have to photograph and lift fingerprints and then mail or transport the evidence to the lab in Harrisburg. It can take a couple of days before investigators get the results back, said Lt. John K. Thierwechter, commanding officer at Chambersburg.

"This has the capability to do it directly and get results in a much shorter period of time," he said.

The vans also will be available to all municipal police departments by request of state police, Lewis said.

An Oct. 6 fatal shooting on West Catherine Street in Chambersburg was one situation in which a mobile unit could have been effective, he said.

Depending on the success of the first 15 mobile laboratories and available funding, state police barracks like the ones in Chambersburg and McConnellsburg may eventually get their own mobile labs, Lewis said.

"We'd like to get to the point that every station gets a field unit," he said.

The new vans are needed because criminal investigations are more technical and investigators have to transport more equipment, Evanko said.

"There was a time when investigators just carried a camera and some fingerprint powder. Now there is simply too much equipment to fit in a car," he said.

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